Ron Simmonds & Gracie Cole
Some years ago I was very pleased to learn that trumpeter Gracie Cole had received the Freedom of the City of London. Let me tell you what I remember about Gracie and some of the other girls who battled on, often at great odds, in a man's world of professional musicians.
I remember meeting some of the girls in the Ivy Benson band at the Villa Marina Gardens in the Isle of Man, back in the 50's. I was working with Jack Parnell's band at another dance hall just along the promenade. Both halls seemed to be packed out every night. I listened to Ivy's band. It was good, very good. We may have been louder, more aggressive maybe, but they were plenty loud enough, and there was nothing wrong with the quality of the girl players. On stage, and elsewhere too, they looked a damn sight better than we did. And they were certainly drawing the crowds.
All of us musicians got into a habit of visiting a certain pub in Douglas at Sunday lunchtimes, where the owner played a mean baritone sax, accompanied on piano by his wife, who looked like a mortician, was thin, compressed and dressed entirely in black. The Benson girls were great fun and there was an enormous feeling of camaraderie between us.
The girls used to hold their own against us in the darts matches in the pub, and they could down a pint of beer or two and still keep their wits about them. They were damned attractive too, all of them. I became enamored of the baritone sax player, Joan Colefield. She had a very old Morris Cowley with a crash gearbox. I couldn't drive it but she drove me all over the island, showing me the sights, and never ground the gears once. I don't know what she like on the baritone sax because I never heard her play, but she was highly critical of the pub owners performance on that instrument. She must have been pretty good to be in Ivy's band anyway.
There was a fairy bridge on the road between the airport and Douglas. Everyone passing over the bridge had to say "Good morning, fairies", or whatever the time of day it was to the fairies. Otherwise they'd get mad, and terrible things would happen to you - like your private bits would fall off and so on. The driver of the airport bus used to stop just before the bridge and warn everyone about it. Luckily we didn't have to cross it every day.
Apart from the bands of Ivy Benson and Blanche Coleman, where else could a girl musician get a job in those days? We had very many excellent girl musicians in Britain at the time, but you could have counted on two fingers the number of girls ever employed in the big name bands, and Gracie was one of them. The other one was Kathy Stobart.
Most people know that Kathy had her own group at the time, with her future husband, Bert Courtley on trumpet. They both came into the Vic Lewis band when I was there in 1951.
What can one say about Kathy? She was featured in Vic's band, had her own groups and has now held the job down in Humphrey Littleton's band for a great many years. She has raised three boys single handed since Bert died. She must have brought immense pleasure to the millions of people who have heard her play, and is a very wonderful person. (She isn't paying me to write this).
I met many other girls who managed to get jobs in the fringe bands of the big London dance halls. They were all exceptionally good. I played with many of them, and they were often as good or better than some of the guys I worked with every day in the studios. But, apart from Gracie and Kathy, I never saw any other girl in a big touring band, or studio session band in London. Now why do you think that was?
Some years ago, when I lived in Berlin, a secretary in one of the radio stations there rang to tell me that Stan Kenton was in their studio, and he had told them that he wanted to contact me. I thought she was pulling my leg. As far as I knew, Kenton was back in the States. So I stayed at home. Next day, the baritone player with Kenton, Roy Reynolds, called me to say they had indeed been in the studio, and had made some recordings. He also told me that there were two girls in the sax section.
Now that was a surprise. Up to then I don't believe that any American band had employed women musicians. Maybe Melba Liston and Lorraine Geller had played in some of the bands, way back, but there have been no others in any of the contemporary bands that I've heard of.
Not long after that happened I played in a band that Al Porcino had gotten together in Munich, and he had three girls in the band, two in the saxes and one trombone. This band was playing mostly Al Cohn, Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer arrangements that Al had picked up from some of the bands he'd worked with. The arrangements were very, very complicated and difficult for anyone to play. The girls just sailed right through them.
When I was with Slide Hampton's band in Berlin, we had an American girl called Carol Dawn Reinhart on third trumpet as a dep one night, and she read the book at sight. With her long blonde hair and miniskirt she looked to be about fourteen years old, but boy, could she play.
Bobby Lamb's daughter taught my niece to play the flute. She (Bob's daughter) had a job in a theater orchestra in town at the time. Even that was news, because in days gone by we only used to see girls playing the occasional oboe and stringed instruments in the theater and studio orchestras. (There was a wicked story circulating at that time that the devastatingly handsome oboe virtuoso Leon Goosens, was the reason that many of the girls decided to take up the instrument in the hopes of being taught by him). In the Parnell TV orchestra the only woman I ever saw was the very elegant and dignified Russian lady harpist, Countess Marie Korchinska.
The fact there are now so many women musicians involved in the extremely difficult business of big-band playing, is heartening. Times have obviously changed because, as in most other walks of life, the girls had to fight really hard for equal rights in the music business. No wonder then that very few girls had even tried to learn trumpets, trombones and saxophones. They were considered as being mens instruments, and women were supposed to keep their hands off them.
I once worked together in the Squadronnaires Dance Orchestra with Gracie Cole, and I'm ashamed to say That I behaved very badly towards her. The only reason I did so was because she was a girl. We were both in a man's band and I thought, for that reason alone, that she had absolutely no right to be there. Bill Geldard, her husband, was in the band on first trombone, but that didn't stop me.
I met Gracie many years later, after a gap in our acquaintance of nearly forty years. No doubt, as far as she was concerned, it wasn't half long enough. I was not expecting to ever see her again, and the shock was so great that I fell on my knees before her and begged forgiveness for my previous behavior, all of those years ago. She graciously accepted, and I'm glad to say, because I really had some bad dreams about all that after it was over.
First of all, she wasn't playing loud enough for me in the section. I have since heard, from many other trumpet players of that period, that I myself was more than exceptionally loud. Stan Reynolds, told me recently that he had never seen any other trumpet player play a high F# and blow his second valve slide right across the room while he was doing so. I didn't remember that incident, but I do remember once breaking off the right hand finger ring of my trumpet on a high note, pulling it right away with my death grip, and punching myself in the face. It is clear that I was not an advocate of the the no pressure system of trumpet playing. Later in life I lost a good part of my hearing, which probably explains everything - I just didn't realize how loud I was at the time.
Poor Gracie; she came on stage radiant in gorgeous chiffon and taffeta evening gown's, beautifully made up, exquisitely perfumed, worked perfectly with the section and played very many superb trumpet solos.
Whatever she did, though, and however well she did it, I was against her. Yet, in spite of my ill-mannered behavior, Gracie remained dignified, correct, ladylike. Maybe she even understood me better than I did myself. But I'll bet she was glad when she'd left the band, and didn't have to put up with me any more.
Girls are always judged by mens standards whenever they enter a venue previously understood to be a mans realm. Of course girls are generally speaking less powerfully built than men. Having said that, I wouldn't have given much for the chances of any man who tried to attack my wife. Lay an unfriendly hand on her, and she would most likely give him a simple overhead throw, followed by a mae-geri kick, two fast yoko-tobi-geri and a fumikomi, finishing up by breaking both his arms and legs. She's a tough one, is my connie. Maybe that's what Gracie should have done to me all those years ago.
I've otherwise always been a great admirer of girls - late in life I have come to realize that they can usually do most things much better than men. My great friend, the Swedish trombone player Ake Persson, alas long departed from this earth, once told me that his Czechoslovakian girl friend could play the piano, cook, make furniture, paint pictures, fix cars and much much more. In short she could do everything better than he." I am never going to let her get her hands on my trombone", he said.
Which brings me, having already donned my hair shirt, beaten my breast and apologized, to say that I am more pleased than anyone could imagine that the City of London saw fit to bestow such an honor upon our Gracie, and would like to offer my love, honor and respect to her, and to all of you lovely and wonderful girl musicians, wherever you may be - bless you.
by kind permission of Ron Simmonds